As the latest attempt to pass the US Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) appears to once again be going down in flames, it becomes crystal clear the continued failure to consider user privacy is what is thwarting efforts to improve cybersecurity.
The White House has said that lingering concerns over privacy and worries of over-intrusive government access will lead the president to veto any legislation which attempts to enact the bill as it stands.
When the president does strike down CISPA, he will do so with the backing of nearly every online user protection group. Organisations ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Electronc Freedom Foundation have come out against the bill, and a grassroots effort from privacy-concerned security researchers and developers is further throwing water on the legislation.
It is safe to say that when CISPA is killed, a large number of people will be cheering its demise.
And yet, there are also ardent backers of the act, major vendors who argue that CISPA is necessary if we are to ward off the next generation of cyber attacks. Firms including Google and IBM have come out in support of the law.
The basis of CISPA is noble enough. The act looks to break down legal barriers which prevent law enforcement agencies from getting free access to web users' data held by private firms in the event of a suspected cyber threat.
Without a doubt, there is a sound argument for an act like CISPA. CISPA would encourage more information sharing between the government and the private sector, allowing both to keep up-to-date on security risks and improve their protections.
Businesses and government organisations could find themselves better equipped to prevent potentially catastrophic cyber attacks on vital infrastructure if they were able to get information over to military or intelligence agencies without fear of breaching privacy safeguards and putting themselves at risk for a data breach lawsuit.
However, as is all too often the case, good intentions and a smart idea are ruined when things go too far. In the case of CISPA, the entirely noble intentions of facilitating cooperation between law enforcement agencies and the private sector leave us with some serious privacy concerns.
According to the opposition argument against CISPA, the law would, among other things, loosen regulations on controversial practices such as wiretapping and could enable law enforcement agencies to be more invasive when investigating crimes.
The White House seems to agree, stating that it would not accept the law as it is and would call on Congress to go back to the drawing board and draft legislation which would be less invasive and would strike a better tone with the public and privacy advocates in general.
In the wake of terrorist acts such as the Boston Marathon attacks, it can be tempting to accept looser investigative controls that allow law enforcement agencies to have more access to data. Should investigations turn up missed clues in cyberspace over the Boston bombings the calls to enable CISPA capabilities will likely gain momentum, much as support for the Patriot Act caught on in late 2001 in the wake of the 11 September terroist attacks.
Much like the Patriot Act, however, many Americans could soon find themselves uncomfortable with the abilities they enabled in government agencies.
As such, cooler heads should prevail and CISPA should be revised to address privacy concerns without alienating either side. Surely a compromise can be reached to enable efficient and anonymous sharing of data between the public and private sector without endangering the privacy and rights of users.
The core idea of CISPA addresses some fundamental security concerns. The details, however, need to be further pruned and refined to ensure that the law will not lead to abuses of power.
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